Once a quiet ranching community, Rosarito (pop. 130,000) became something of a mini Las Vegas, only without the casinos, but fell on hard times in the wake of drug wars and an ongoing global recession.
Development began in the 1920s with the opening of El Rosario Resort and Country Club and reached a feverish pitch in the 1990s, when Fox Studios came to town. Located just 30 miles south of San Diego, Rosarito’s fate as a party town was sealed when the Hotel Festival Plaza built a huge entertainment complex right on the waterfront.
The town’s greatest appeal today—as then—is its long, sandy beach , which the high-rise hotels and luxury condos are slowly crowding out.
Until 1995 Rosarito belonged to the municipio (county) of Tijuana, and played a major role in funding the larger city’s annual budget. Rosarito residents lobbied for 15 years to create their own municipio, so they could use the city’s relatively high income to develop its own infrastructure and services rather than supporting Tijuana’s.
Tourism drives Rosarito’s economy today, but like Tijuana  and Tecate , the town has been severely affected by the wave of drug-related violence sweeping through Northwestern Baja. To their credit, local authorities have taken steps to improve security, and they have results to show for it.
Crime in the town declined 21 percent in 2009 to a five-year low, thanks to the efforts of former mayor Hugo Torres, who served his second three-year term 2007–2010. By replacing corrupt officers and training a dedicated tourist police force, Mr. Torres has begun to win back the confidence of expats and travelers; however, hotels and beaches remain almost empty.
Many first-time visitors to Rosarito return home disappointed in the overall scene and the quality of their accommodations. This is a party town; on weekends and any day in the summer, the clubs rock until dawn . Chances are you will hear the music from your room, especially if you stay anywhere close to the main strip.
March and April bring groups of college kids on spring break, while an older crowd from Mexico and the United States visits during the peak summer months. If you know what you’re in for, it can be a fun time, but if you’re looking for a quiet escape in a boutique hotel, this isn’t the place.
Taxis de ruta make the 40-minute trip between Tijuana  and Rosarito for about US$35 per person. You can hail one on Boulevard Juárez. These taxis can also provide service to the coastal towns south of Rosarito. The white-and-red taxis you see around town offer local service only.
Mexicoach (tel. 664/685-1470, U.S. tel. 619/428-9517, www.mexicoach.com ) also runs shuttles between Tijuana and Rosarito (US$15 pp).
You can take the toll road (Mexico 1 D) or the free road (Mexico 1) from Tijuana to Rosarito. The distance is about the same, but the toll road is faster and easier to find.
If you’re driving north out of Rosarito, follow the sign toward San Diego; the one for Tijuana puts you on the highway heading south to Ensenada .
Small shuttles called calafias are another way to get around locally on Boulevard Juárez. The fare is only a few pesos.